Smarter Balanced FAQ

Smarter Balanced FAQ

What's new for 2016?

  1. Reduced assessment time. The assessments have eliminated the previously required classroom-based activity before each Performance Task. This will reduce time spent on the assessments.
  2. Uniform assessment windows. No longer do third-graders and 11th-graders have a shortened testing window. All grades may take the assessment between mid-March and early June.
  3. Option to release high school scores to colleges. At the end of the Smarter Balanced assessment for grades 10 and 11, students are given the option to check a box that would allow scores to be released to colleges. Scores will only be requested after a student has been admitted to a college (so that colleges can determine whether to waive placement tests and remedial courses), so this option would not impact admission.

How are the assessments organized and how long do they take?

In Smarter Balanced, both the English language arts and math assessments are online, and each is organized into two sections:

  1. Questions: Series of questions, estimated to take 1.5-2 hours.
  2. Performance Task: Real-world scenario requiring multiple steps (and extended writing in language arts), estimated to take 1-2 hours.

Individual schools send specific assessment schedules to families in the spring.

How can I best prepare my child for the assessments?

Our teachers' engaging daily lessons are the most effective preparation for students because the assessments are designed to match classroom learning goals. Teachers provide keyboarding practice for our younger students, and schools familiarize students with the online format through brief training tests.

Families may take practice tests at home if they'd like, and students tend to perform best when they are well fed and well rested. No additional family preparation is necessary other than a positive attitude and growth mindset.

How do the Smarter Balanced assessments present content differently?

Smarter Balanced assessments are designed to require more complex thinking than previous state assessments required. For example:

  • Evidence: Students must go beyond simply skim-reading or answering writing prompts with only personal opinion. The assessments demand close reading and evidence-based responses.
  • Rigor: Students may not rely as much on process-of-elimination. The assessment includes some multiple choice with more than one answer as well as other demands for higher-level thinking.
  • Authenticity: It may not be enough to apply memorized formulas to a set of numbers out of context. Smarter Balanced asks students to apply math concepts to real-life situations, often requiring multiple steps.
  • Writing: Writing is now assessed at all tested grade levels, with extended writing in English language arts. Even math includes some short-answer writing.

The assessments are online. Does this change the way students take the test?

The online format means the tests can be:

  • Interactive: More than just multiple-choice, students may be asked to drag-and-drop answers, complete charts or highlight evidence. 
  • Adaptive: Assessments conform to ability; questions become more or less challenging for each student depending on answers.
  • Supportive: The online platform offers supports for all students, such as built-in calculators, highlighters, etc., and more specific accommodations for students with special needs.


How will scores be shared with families?

The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) mails hard copies of state test scores to school districts in September, the district distributes them to schools, and schools make them available to families. These are the score reports that show families how students fared on the Smarter Balanced assessments the previous spring. Scores are posted to The Source in October.

Need help interpreting your child's scores?

How are the scoring ranges determined?

The Smarter Balanced score reports will allow families to chart students' grade-level growth over the years. Score numbers will range from about 2,000 to 3,000, with achievement levels from 1-4. Teachers and community members helped set these levels initially by using data from 2014 field tests involving more than 3 million students. Take a look at that process here.

Smarter Balanced is different enough that scores cannot be accurately compared to those of previous state tests, but families may be tempted to compare them anyway, especially if a student's proficiency level changes. Remember that scoring shifts are normal whenever more rigorous academics and their assessments are introduced; teachers and students need time to adjust. The 2015 scores are viewed as a baseline that will help our teachers (and families) measure future growth.

Because the assessments were new in 2015, teachers and school leaders have recalibrated their expectations, knowing that scoring shifts are normal and teachers and students need time to adjust. For example, state officials have adjusted passing scores for graduation to maintain the current graduation rate. Everybody is working together to ensure that students' scores are viewed fairly as we grow into more challenging academic expectations.

How will student data be collected and shared?

For families with concerns about how student data will be gathered and shared, please view the OSPI Student Privacy information page.

How are ELL students and others with special needs accommodated?

The state provides more information about how students with special needs and English Language Learners are accommodated under the Special Populations header on its FAQ page OSPI State Testing accommodations information.

For ELL students, the assessments include translation glossaries in 10 languages (Filipino, Korean, Mandarin, Punjabi, Russian, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Spanish, Arabic and Cantonese), with translated student directions in additional languages (Dakota, French, Haitian, Hmong, Japanese, Lakota, Somali and Yupik). The assessments include a variety of accommodation options, such as using dictionaries in the student's home language or having items read aloud. Students who have been in an English-speaking school for less than a year are exempt from the English language arts assessment.

What's the state requirement for third-graders?

Smarter Balanced assessments begin in third grade, an important age for literacy development. For this reason, the state now requires that third-graders who are identified as struggling readers receive academic interventions through the child's school. Schools may identify these struggling readers before the Smarter Balanced is administered. But for students not previously identified, the state mandates that students with a Level 1 score (out of four levels) on the English language arts Smarter Balanced assessment are scheduled for academic interventions. Your child's teacher or principal will contact you, if necessary. 

What are the requirements for high school students?

The state requires that districts administer the Smarter Balanced assessments to high school juniors if they have not taken the assessment as sophomores and scored in a predetermined range. Though most 11th-graders’ scores will not be used for graduation nor will they appear on transcripts, nearly 200 colleges have agreed to waive testing for remedial courses for students who earn a level 3 or 4 on the assessment.

Read more about that agreement.

Read Washington state Superintendent Randy Dorn's 2015 letter to eleventh-grade students and their families.

The state also requires districts to administer ONLY the English language arts assessment to current 10th-graders as a graduation requirement. Existing math and biology end-of-course exams continue as grad requirements in those subject areas for current sophomores and juniors, but English language arts has shifted to Smarter Balanced. 

Your student’s counselor can provide more information, and you may click the image above to view our graduation test chart, organized by grad year.

What if my child doesn't take the assessment?

Students who do not take the assessment receive a score of zero.

Families who refuse to allow their children to participate in assessments, including Smarter Balanced, must submit the refusal in writing, signed and dated, to go in the student's permanent record file. Parents or guardians must submit this refusal annually. Families may use this refusal form, or submit a clear written and signed document. Refusals should be submitted to the child's principal.

Here are consequences:

  • Students who do not participate will receive a "zero" score on the assessment and no score report for teachers or families to view.
  • A zero will negatively impact the school's overall results.
  • Refusals could jeopardize the school district's federal funding.
  • Teachers will not receive results that could be used as a tool to measure the student's academic growth.
  • Families will not receive results that will enable them to chart the student's growth over time.
  • Beginning in 2016-2017, Smarter Balanced will be used as the achievement measure for Highly Capable eligibility. In order to be designated as Highly Capable or as an Advanced Learner, multiple criteria are considered, including but not limited to measures of both cognitive and achievement abilities. If a student goes through the Highly Capable referral process, but refuses to participate in Smarter Balanced testing in 2016-2017, the student will not meet all of the criteria for Highly Capable services or the Spectrum program. Note that families in this case will have the option to appeal the decision.
  • High school juniors without assessment results will not be eligible for the remedial testing waiver offered by state colleges (see above).
  • Students who do not participate will receive supervision but not instruction during assessment time.
  • Students who do not receive a passing score for the high school state assessment in all required subjects, or an approved alternative (including the state-defined prerequisites to access approved alternatives), will not be able to obtain a high school diploma.  

Additional FAQs

In 2014-15, the first year the Smarter Balanced assessments were administered, Superintendent Larry Nyland provided in-depth FAQs for families.

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